In May 1996, Robson was enjoying the fruits of his work at Porto when he took a phone call the president of FC Barcelona. Ostensibly it was to discuss a potential transfer target from the Portuguese club, but the conversation moved on to another target that the Catalans had focused on.
At the time, the Blaugrana were a club in turmoil. A messy divorce from Johan Cruyff had left the club rudderless. The board had decided on Louis van Gaal as the man they wanted to put all the pieces back together again. At the time however, the coach was contracted to Ajax, and wouldn’t be available for another twelve months. Barcelona, a ship perilously holed and taking in water needed an experienced hand at the tiller to guide the club into safer and calmer waters before handing over to Van Gaal. They had settled on Robson as the ideal candidate. As things transpired though, the Englishman would deliver a season that bordered on being the very best in the club’s history, and convinced them to maintain his services, even after Van Gaal’s appointment, as a lifebelt that the club could use if the Dutch coach came up short.
Robson was content at Porto and, with the club’s future looking bright, there were very few jobs that could tempt him away. One would be a return to his beloved north-east and Newcastle United. That chance would arrive later. The other was to take charge of one of the continent’s iconic clubs, FC Barcelona. It was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities that he simply could not ignore. He would also take José Mourinho with him.
Many coaches, even the most experienced, would have blanched had been offered such a poisoned chalice to quench their ambitious thirst. Cruyff had achieved legendary status at the Camp Nou and was worshipped by the Cules, delivering four La Liga titles, three Supercopa de España successes, and a Copa del Rey, domestically. In Europe, he had added a Cup Winners Cup and led the club to achieve their Holy Grail of a European Cup win as well as lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup. It was the hardest of acts to follow.
Robson had no doubts however and, in his first press conference was in no mood to apologise for sitting in the seat previously occupied by the Dutchman. In firm tones, he insisted that there would be no shadow of Cruyff haunting his time as coach. ‘I am not afraid to follow him,’ he confirmed. ‘When the President of the United States leaves, they have to get another President of the United States.’ It was typical Robson, calm, honest and reassuring, but sustained by the confident belief that he would deliver.
Cruyff’s final season had been a disappointment, and one that convinced the Dutchman that the time to leave had arrived. Rows with the club’s hierarchy may have been the trigger causing the split, but the deterioration of the teams’ performances were a strong underlying cause. Third place in the league, seven points adrift of champions Atlético Madrid was hugely disappointing, although it did offer a place in the upcoming season’s Cup Winners Cup competition, an opening that Robson would seize upon. It had followed a season where second place to Real Madrid had felt so much worse. Barcelona had also fared poorly in cup competitions, losing out in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey to Radomir Antić’s Atléti as Los Colchoneros completed the domestic double, and in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The club’s squad was packed with talented players but needed a renaissance. Robson would deliver that, and bring in a player who would achieve a God-like adoration at the club.
Despite only being seen as a stop-gap appointment, Robson was not shy in venturing his opinion when the president asked about how the squad could be improved. ‘The President said to me “we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.’ He was, but it was a risk worth taking. Barcelona sent $19.5million to PSV Eindhoven and, in return, received the services of the player who earned the nickname of “El Fenomeno” – Ronaldo. Eight months, and 47 goals in 49 games later, when Van Gaal took over from Robson, the Brazilian would also move on, joining Inter Milan. The fee of $27million also delivered a handsome profit on the club’s investment.
With the services of the Brazilian prodigy added to the Blaugrana squad, Robson got to work rebuilding the belief in the squad he inherited that had fallen short across the previous two seasons. Early evidence of the transformative effect of Robson was illustrated in August of the same year when his team hammered the previous season’s double winners 5-2 in the first leg of the Supercopa de España with the goals coming from Giovani, Pizzi, plus El Pequeño Buda, Iván de la Peña and, inevitably setting the tone for the coming season, a brace from Ronaldo. Atléti would fightback in the home leg, but their 3-1 victory was short of hauling back the deficit and Robson had his first trophy.
Cruyff had bequeathed Robson a European qualification and, in September, Barcelona set off in pursuit of the Cup Winners Cup. A hesitant opening encounter with AEK Larnaca was safely, if less than wildly convincingly, passed thanks to another two goals from Ronaldo. It took the Catalans into a meeting with Red Stat Belgrade. By now the club were delivering convincing performances and a 4-2 home win followed by a goalless draw in Belgrade was encouraging, sending the club into the last eight and a tie with Swedish club AIK.
The home leg came first and, when the visitors took an early lead inside two minutes, a test was looming for Robson’s charges. With assured serenity however, they struck back through Popescu to equalise and further strikes by Ronaldo and Pizzi meant that the goalless draw achieved in Stockholm was more than enough for a place in the semi-finals.
Alongside Barcelona, Liverpool, Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain made up the final four. Robson’s team were paired with the Italians, the first leg again being played at the Camp Nou. This was a much sterner test, and despite Nadal giving the Blaugrana the lead, a goal from Batistuta squared things up and gave I Viola the advantage heading to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the return leg. To turn matters in Barcelona’s favour, facing such an uphill struggle, would require a coaching and tactical masterclass. Robson delivered one.
On 24 April, the Blaugrana produced the perfect disciplined performance to return with a 0-2 victory and progress to the final in in Rotterdam’s Feyenoord Stadion against PSG who had defeated Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate. As so often is the case in showpiece finals, the game itself failed to live up to the billing, but a penalty from Ronaldo was sufficient to take the trophy to Catalunya. Robson had two trophies out of two. After the fallow period of the last days of Cruyff’s tenure, Robson had turned Barcelona back into a strutting powerhouse of a team hungry for trophies.
At the same time, as well as improving their league performances, things were developing nicely in the Copa del Rey. A round of Sixteen encounter had brought the club an extra El Clásico meeting with Real Madrid. The ties are played over two legs and the first game, at the Camp Nou promised success when Ronaldo gave the Blaugrana the lead. Goals by Šuker and Hierro though put a different complexion on the game before Nadal and Giovanni gave Robson’s team a fig leaf of cover to take to the Spanish capital for the return leg. It demanded another ‘Fiorentina’ performance and Robson’s team delivered with a 1-1 draw.
The next round saw a titanic battle with cup holders and reigning Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. A 2-2 draw at the Estadio Vicente Calderón appeared to give the Barcelona the edge, but the return game would go down in history as a goal glut decided the tie. With 30 minutes on the clock, the Camp Nou was subdued into stunned silence as a hat-trick from Milinko Pantić had Atléti three goals clear and apparently coasting to victory, but Robson had drilled his team well and given them an almost unshakeable belief in themselves. At the break he delivered his words of wisdom and the team responded with vigour. Five minutes before half-time, Robson had made his intentions clear. Laurent Blanc and Popescu were taken off with forwards Pizzi and Stoickov replacing them. The response was immediate.
Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored and then repeated the feat three minutes later. Inside the opening five minutes of the second period, a declaration of intent had been made. Atléti were hardly happy to roll over though and, a minute after the Brazilin had cut the gap to a single goal, Pantić hit his fourth of the night to double it again. Figo struck back on 67 minutes, and the Catalan cauldron of a stadium was at fever pitch with 20 minutes to play, as Ronaldo squared things on the night. In a basketball -like game inside the final ten minutes it was Pizzi who notched the winner. As well as his team being able to deliver disciplined away performances, Robson had shown that they could also indulge in a slug-fest with the best that Spain had to offer and still prevail.
Having defeated the previous two seasons’ champions, the Copa del Rey was now surely there for the taking, and so it proved. Las Palmas were buried under a seven-goal aggregate thumping and, in the final, 83,000 fans would see the Blaugrana twice fight back from falling behind against Real Betis with Figo hitting the winner in extra-time. It was a third trophy garnered by Robson. Strangely however, it would have been somewhat of cold comfort for the Cules. Weeks earlier, their dream of a complete whitewash of all available trophies had disappeared with a freak league defeat against a club who were already relegated at the time.
With three games left to play, Barcelona had been in pole position to become league champions and put the club in position for a clean sweep of titles. A visit to the Costa Blanca and Alicante-based club Hércules looked a fairly straightforward task. There was however a measure of discontent in the club with rumours of Ronaldo moving on to Inter becoming increasingly difficult to ignore and, the Brazilian was unavailable to Robson for the game, along with Pizzi and Giovanni. Even then though, with depleted forces, there seemed little danger – or was there?
Despite their troubled season, Hércules had already upset the Bluagrana, being the only club to visit the Camp Nou and come away with a victory. Robson was also reading the runes as despite his tremendous success the possibility of him being retained instead of Van Gaal was seemingly a lost cause. The dark clouds were gathering, although few people outside of the club recognised it.
The game itself was a bewildering occasion. After just three minutes, it seemed that form was playing out as Guardiola put Barcelona ahead and, although they couldn’t add to the lead, there seemed little danger from a team with nothing to play for. Perhaps that freedom from the weight of relegation, now a mathematical certainty however, released the Hércules players to perform and offer one last moment of glory. Shortly before the break Paquito Escudero equalised and six minutes after the restart, the unthinkable happened as Hércules went ahead, with Serbian defender Dubravko Pavlicic sliding in to divert the ball past Vítor Baía.
Robson’s team now needed two goals to maintain their advantage in the league over Real Madrid. In the following 40 minutes they laid siege to the home goal but, despite dominating the game and firing shots in from all angles and distances, the goals that had come so easily to them throughout the season – they would score 102 times in 42 league games, by far the best in the division – were now beyond their reach. At the end of the game, the club that would finish one spot from the foot of the table had completed a league double over Barcelona, and destroyed their hopes of league glory.
Real Madrid overcame Extremadura by five goals in their corresponding fixture. Barcelona’s doom was set, as Robson recognised. ‘Mathematically, we’ve still got a chance, but realistically it’s very difficult now.,’ he lamented. It was. Los Blancos efficiently wrapped up the required points and a season that offered a clean sweep of trophies had been scuppered by a relegated club whose wins over Barcelona had denied them the best season in their history.
At the end of the season, Van Gaal arrived and, in gratitude – with a thought as to whether his services may be needed again – Robson was offered an emeritus post as ‘Technical Director’. Van Gaal did well in the early years of his tenure at the Camp Nou, delivering successive league titles, but was it any better than Robson would have done? Statistics can be made to support any argument, but by the time Van Gaal left the Camp Nou, his win percentage was 55%. Robson’s had been 65%.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).
All the best stories follow a similar line. Firstly, there’s this little guy, unknown, quiet, but dedicated, never upsetting anyone, simply getting on with his ever-so-simple understated life. Deep down though, locked away in the secret secluded corner of his mind, where amazing hopes can survive untouched by the harsh cruelty of reality, he has his dream. He dreams about the day when everyone will know his name, recognise him, respect him and smile; when they’ll celebrate his achievements, and nod approvingly at him; when he becomes a big guy. It’s never going to happen of course, he’s sure of that, but he has his dream to keep him warm on the cold and lonely nights, and he keeps wishing.
Then, there’s this big guy. He’s OK. Quite often not a bad sort of chap really, but he’s hogged all the glory for himself, and when the little guy tangles with the big guy, the outcome is only going one way, isn’t it? Both the little guy and the big guy want to be on the big stage where all the brightest lights shine. Even if he gets there, the little guy knows he may not get a starring role. He may only appear briefly, but if he can just beat the big guy, he would have his ticket to the ball, get to mix with the big players, his wish would come true. It would be something no-one could ever take away from. For a while at least, he’ll have become a big guy as well.
Sadly, of course, dreams are mere whims of fancy. They’re never meant to played out in real life. Never tested in real life. Never seen in real life. That little guy can wish all he likes, but to quote Lev Grossman, “If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so.” Dreams are for stories, as novelist Grossman would confirm, and that’s where they stay. Well, perhaps. Sometimes, just sometimes, wishing can make it so, dreams get into stories, and stories get into real life, and the little guy does become the big guy. Sometimes, just like the stories that so often begin with, “Once upon a time…” the little guy gets to go to the ball. Don’t believe me? Well read on. Continue reading →
After winning the FA Cup in 1970, defeating Leeds United in a couple of brutal battles first at Wembley, and then in the replay at Old Trafford, Chelsea entered the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Under the guidance of their young and upwardly mobile coach Dave Sexton, the club were keen to prove their credentials of being more than a showy collection of flashy players more at home in Carnaby Street than on a football pitch. With the FA Cup victory suggesting the club were on an upward trajectory, European football was the ideal place to stake their claim. It was their first venture into European competition. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Continue reading →
In 1981, at the age of 33, Ray Clemence decided to leave Liverpool. He had been with the club since 24 June 1967, when Bill Shankly paid a reported £18,000 to Scunthorpe United to take the goalkeeper to Anfield. Across the next 14 years or so, Clemence would accumulate enough silverware to fill the most ostentatious of trophy cabinets. Five League Championships, FA Cup and League Cup triumphs and five Charity Shields added up to a sizeable domestic haul, but there was also substantial success in Europe. No less than three European Cups came his way, along with two UEFA Cups and a UEFA Super Cup. With that lot bringing towards 20 medals, it’s a good job that Clemence had pretty safe hands if he was ever required to hold them all at the same time. Continue reading →
In May 1996, Barcelona were a club in turmoil. Having experienced the delirious heights of success with Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ delivering no less than eleven trophies in eight seasons, including the Holy Grail of the European Cup, the relationship between Catalan club and revered Dutchman had been torn asunder. Any divorce between an employer and the emotional, impulsive, and often combustive Cruyff would always be messy, but this split would make ‘Kramer versus Kramer’ look tame in comparison. Continue reading →
There’ll be fearsome arguments about who is the best ‘foreign’ import to British football. Some will argue for Cantona or Schmeichel at Manchester United, Henry or Bergkamp at Arsenal. Others will tout for their particular favourites. Chelsea fans would perhaps posit Drogba. What may be less contentious though is the most likeable of imports to the British game – or perhaps the least disliked anyway. Is there much argument that such accolade should fall to Gianfranco Zola? In the nineties, the little Sardinian was exceptional at three clubs, covering the decade; two in Italy, Napoli and Parma, and then when donned in Chelsea blue at Stamford Bridge, he charmed so many fans of all clubs with incandescent magic in his boots and an infectious smile on his face.
Stardom came late to Zola. At 23 years of age, he was still playing third tier football in his native Sardinia, when Lucciano Moggi took him to Napoli. If taking a gamble on an unknown player that had seemingly slipped through the net of so many other clubs seemed strange to many, the astute Moggi would reap huge dividends on the move. At the time, the Partenopei were enjoying a golden period at the San Paolo, with the incomparable Diego Maradona in his pomp and sweeping all before him, aided and abetted by the razor-sharp finishing of Brazilian striker Careca. For a player plunged into the torrid world of Serie A from the more sedate backwaters of Sardinian domestic football, it was a finishing school par excellence, and one that benefitted Zola immensely. He would go on to be the anointed successor to the Argentine magician and the club would win the Scudetto and Italian Super Cup in his time there. In his final season with the club, the impish Zola would accumulate more assists than any other player in the league.
In four seasons with Napoli, he would increase both the number of games played, and amount of goals scored in each succeeding term. Financial strife hit the club however, and Zola was one of the more marketable assets available to bring in much needed money. Parma paid some ₤13 million for him and, after scoring 32 goals in slightly more than a century of appearances, he moved to the Crociati.
At the time, Parma were riding the crest of a sponsorship wave that would, later, come crashing down around them. When Zola joined in 1993 however, success was still the order of the day, and under the charge of Nevio Scala, a UEFA Cup triumph was secured in 1995. The following year however saw the appointment of Carlo Ancelotti, and the end of Zola’s time in Parma would quickly follow. Wedded to a rigid team structure of 4-4-2, and convinced of the virtue of playing Hernán Crespo and Enrico Chiesa at the spearhead of his team, Ancelotti’s decision pushed Zola out to a wide midfield position that hardly suited his abilities. After two seasons under Scala when he scored 22 goals in 51 games, and then followed it up with 28 in the same number of appearances, being shunted out to the flanks – and even the bench on occasions – inevitably blunted Zola’s striking sharpness. In the 1995-96 season he would net a dozen times in 36 games and in the following term, things deteriorated even more. He would score twice in 12 games. Zola had a choice. At 30 years of age, he could see out his time in Italy and watch his career dwindle into anonymity, or he could he could look for a new club. He chose the latter.
In West London, Glenn Hoddle had moved on to the England hot seat, and Ken Bates had installed Ruud Gullit in his place. Having played in Serie A, the Dutchman had significant contacts in Italy, and used them to persuade Zola to come to England. A £4.5million cheque secured his services. At the time, many thought it a foolhardy gamble to pay out for a player already arguably past his best and into the latter years of his career. They would be proved to be so very wrong. This was still the time when nobody at Stamford Bridge had heard of Roman Abramovich, and the club hadn’t secured a trophy for more than two decades. The arrival of the little Italian would change all that though. An FWA award of Footballer of the Year in his first term in England speaks of the impact he had on the club – and the game in general. Not only as an outstanding player, but apparently a thoroughly nice bloke as well.
Mention the name of Zola to any Chelsea fan and a misty-eyed glance into the middle distance will be accompanied by a gentle sigh of reflective appreciation. Not only did he bring success to the club, but he did so with a smiling countenance and a professionalism that would set new standards. A brace of FA Cup victories, a European triumph in the Cup Winners Cup when a half-fit Zola came off the bench to win the game with a sumptuous strike, and a UEFA Super Cup required space to be found in a Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet more accustomed to the acquisition of dust rather than silverware.
There were goals, of course, but there was magic too. Eighty strikes for a team that was never really threatening the major powers of the game is success enough, but for so many fans, it wasn’t the number of strikes that made Gianfranco Zola such an icon of the time, it was his ebullience and sheer entertainment value. Dancing feet, and the ability to beat the same player three times in a telephone kiosk were the entrancing memories that he brought, and when he scored goals, so many were gems that still warm the hearts of fans inclined to reminisce wearing blue-tinted spectacles.
Ask Chelsea fans to recount their favourite moment of Zola magic and you may get a variety of answers, such was the stardust sprinkled on his play in so many games. The thumping strike that won Chelsea’s first European trophy for more than 25 years. The back-heal flick from a corner that bamboozled Norwich. Any number of poetically converted free-kicks curled past befuddled goalkeepers. The time that he was hemmed in by the corner flag by Liverpool defenders, but danced away from them, putting Jamie Carragher on his backside twice in quick succession. All were moments were to savour.
A somewhat spiteful fate conspired that the arrival of Abramovich coincided with the departure of Zola. A club in financial trouble couldn’t afford the offer of a new contract, and Zola agreed to return to Sardinia and Cagliari. Legend has it that Abramovich offered a hatful of money for the 36-year-old to stay with the club, but Zola, ever the honourable man, had given his word to Cagliari and wouldn’t renege in his vow. Hardly anyone would have expected anything different from Zola. He would arrive there and see them to promotion in his first term – of course, he would. It was just one more piece of magic from the incomparable Gianfranco Zola. Icon of the nineties.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Names of the Nineties’ series on These Football Times website).
Into the tail-end of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ England thought itself to be the beating heart of world culture. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who were just a few of the groups of the day redefining the musical era across the globe. In fashion Mary Quant, and similar outlets on Carnaby Street and Chelsea’s Kings Road were tearing asunder the grey clothing of post-war austerity as their vivid colours burst outrageously into the world, as a butterfly from a chrysalis. And, in football, England were world champions. The afterglow from the Boys of ’66 and that July day at Wembley was still redolent and had further inflated the arrogant and almost ubiquitous belief that this was the home of football.
All of this was, of course, well before it became almost obligatory for English clubs to stack out their squads with players from all parts of the globe. That said though, even in these hedonistic self-centred times, a few hardy pioneering souls ventured beyond their homeland to ply their trade amongst the pompously insular English football environment. Amongst that brave few was a Dane who initially moved to Scotland to turn professional, burning his international career temporarily as the Denmark team was only open to amateur players at the time. He would later join Newcastle United where he would earn legendary status, achieving things that more celebrated later lights such as Malcolm Macdonald, Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer could only dream of, before seeing out his time in the country with Blackburn Rovers, as his international resumed. He would then return to Denmark to see out his playing career. Continue reading →
British football’s first European success and the ‘Glory, Glory’ nights of Tottenham’s 1963 Cup Winners Cup triumph.
After securing the domestic ‘Double’ in 1961, Tottenham Hotspur went into the following season’s European Cup competition with an ambition born of conviction. They would, however, come up short against Benfica in the semi-final. Furthermore, the exertions in Europe may also have compromised their domestic league campaign, and Bill Nicholson’s team ended up in third place. They did however retain the FA Cup, with a 3-1 victory over Burnley. The title went to Ipswich Town, under the guidance of Alf Ramsey. The Suffolk team would fall against AC Milan in the First Round of the European Cup, after romping through the preliminaries against a Maltese side. For Spurs however, it was the Cup Winners Cup, and although the poor relation of European club competitions, lifting the trophy would still give the North London club the not inconsiderable distinction of being the first British club to triumph in such company. Continue reading →
The name of Jock Stein is lauded – and rightly so – throughout British football as one of the greatest managers of all time. Whilst manager of Celtic, he would accumulate ten Scottish league championships, eight Scottish Cups and six Scottish League Cups. He would also lead the club to unheralded glory when they lifted the European Cup in 1967, becoming the first British club to ascend to such honour.
Many years before that momentous Lisbon evening however, Jock Stein, coach to Celtic’s reserves after injury ended his playing career, would be told that he would never be promoted to the manager’s chair due to his Protestant beliefs. It was this barrier that caused him to leave the club in 1960, in pursuit of a managerial CV that would compel the cub to rethink. Five years later, he achieved that goal and returned to Celtic Park as manger to lead the club to glory. In between those times though, he would cut his teeth as manager and begin the legend of Jock Stein the manager that wold lead to European glory, at lowly Dunfermline Athletic. Continue reading →
If the sobriquet of ‘Dolly and Daisy’ sounds like a double act from an Old Time Musical Hall playbill, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that, thanks to their manager, it was in fact the nom de guerre of the most successful central defensive pairings of the early Premier League years. Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister were the pair in question, and they would write their names large into the history of the most successful football club of the time. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance that the pairing had on the development of Manchester United’s domestic dominance, when Sir Alex Ferguson built his dynasty of success. Suffice to say however, that the unassuming pair at the heart of the Old Trafford backline was the rock upon which the Scot relied over a seven-year partnership jammed full with trophies. Continue reading →